While the Shirakawa-go is the bigger tourist destinations for Gassho-zukuri houses, there is another area that you should visit: Gokayama. Its unique charm, magnificent architecture and beautiful scenery make it the best neighborhood you should consider staying in.
The Goyakama region is located in the southwestern part of Toyama. You can see Gassho-zukuri Houses at both Ainokura and Suganuma areas in Gokayama. The distance between Ainokura and Suganuma is 11 km. I brought my kids who had never seen a thatched roof old house in their lives to Gokayama’s Ainokura area to stay at a Gassho-zukuri House.
The Gassho-zukuri House’s roof has a slope of about 60-degrees, forming a nearly equilateral triangle to allow heavy snow to slide off the roof and to protect the house from the harsh conditions. At the same time, it provides space for living and working. Only ropes were used to build the roof of Gassho-zukuri Houses.
Gassho-zukuri House is a very functional and rational place to live and produce commodities. The production space and living space for the family is formulated very well.
Ainokura World Heritage Site
Ainokura has 23 Gassho-style houses and most of them are 100-200 years old. They were built from the end of the Edo era to the Meiji era. About 80 residents live in the Ainokura area. I saw some kids who were playing near a footpath.
In the Shirakawa-go area, some Gassho-zukuri Houses had been relocated from nearby villages to preserve them and the Shirakawa-go area was extensive compared to the Ainokura area. In contrast, Ainokura’s Gassho-zukuri Houses were preserved for living in the same area and local people have kept the tradition and scenery until now.
I imagined it must be so hard to preserve their old houses and protect cultural properties with so many tourists visiting the Ainokura area. At the same time, I wish I could live among its natural surroundings.
What to See
What made the Ainokura area special for me was beautiful nature such as, the crop fields, surrounding mountains and forests, ponds, footpaths and blue sky.
We just walked around to find frogs in rice fields and catch insects near open gardens. Flowers were blooming and trees had turned deep green. A small stream was running through a village and we could enjoy the coolness of the flow of water.
Where to stay in the Ainokura
When choosing accommodations for my stay, my checklist includes Nature, Local Foods and Communication. Shoushichi met all of my check list and staying overnight at Gassho-zukuri House inn was the best way to experience Japanese culture. There are about 6 inns in the Ainokura area. The capacity is limited, so a reservation is needed.
Natural surroundings was the most important, as we can sleep with open windows to listen to outside sounds. Even though we didn’t close the windows and doors, we could feel very safe.
The best part of Shoushichi was Okami, a landlady. She was an excellent communicator and a real story teller. She could have a conversation with people of every generations and background. She energetically told her own story and gave answers to various questions from us. While enjoying its traditional cuisine of flavorful mountain vegetables, iwana trout and carp, we could chat with her.
An old tale…
The Ainokura area was isolated geographically and it had heavy snow in winter. The mountain village remained closed off to the world for a long time and this led to the establishment of a unique lifestyle.
Gokayama Tunnel was constructed in 1984 to connect the Gokayama region and Johana town, the nearest town to the Ainokura area. Before that, people had to go through the steep-walled valley and mountains while carrying heavy loads. So, the village principle was self-sufficiency.
The landlady told us she went to Johana town with her father for the first time when she was 10 years old. She carried heavy burdens for merchandising and walked all day to visit the Johana town. When she arrived at the town, she was delighted to see a sophisticated and gorgeous town. Her story was so astonishing for my kids who only knew car and train as transportations. It was not a fairytale. Her real story made us imagine the old days in Gokayama vividly.
How to get there
Express buses run to visit Gokayama and Shirakawa-go from Shinjuku in Tokyo, Nagoya, Toyama and Kanazawa. Nagoya is the most popular station to visit Gokayama and Shirakawa-go. It takes 1 hour and 40 mins from Tokyo to Nagoya Station by Shinkansen bullet train. Express bus will take you to Gokayama area in 2 and a half hours from the Nagoya Station. World Heritage Bus goes around Johana, Gokayama and Shirakawa-go area and it’s no reservation required.
How long to stay
It is efficient to join one or 2 day tours to visit the Gokayama and Shirakawago area, but my recommendation is to stay one night at least there. If you stay at a Gassho-zukuri House, you can have various and rich experiences to know traditional lifestyle in Japan.
It takes only 30-40 mins to look around the Ainokura area, but 2-3 hours spent there would be nice. We stayed one night at an old Gassho-zukuri House, Shoushichi, and walked around in the Ainokura area during daytime, morning and night time.